Hardware

Expanding market, shrinking talent pool create demand for chip designers

Companies like Intel and Texas Instruments are desperate for chip designers. Why is there a shortage? What background do you need to land such a lucrative job? Bob Weinstein explains in this week's TechWatch.


While there is a shortage of virtually all high-tech workers, the demand for chip designers is off the charts.

Norris Palmanteer, staffing manager for Santa Clara, CA-based Intel’s Architecture Group, says the company needs about 1,500 designers. The company employs 78,000 staffers worldwide, including 8,000 chip designers. “We’re always looking for them,” Palmanteer said.

It’s the same story at Dallas, TX-based digital signal processor manufacturer Texas Instruments, according to Senior Vice President of Human Resources Steve Leven. The company employs 22,000 staff members in the United States, including roughly 3,000 chip designers. If Leven could find 500 candidates with the right credentials, he’d hire them on the spot.

“This year will mark our most aggressive hiring year,” he said. “We are expanding rapidly in the marketing, design, and manufacturing of chips.”
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Why the intense shortage?
Leven attributes the shortage of chip designers to the falling number of graduates who have electrical engineering (EE) degrees: “In the 1980s, colleges turned out 25,000 engineers annually with EE degrees,” Leven said. “That number has dropped to 12,500 a year.”

Part of the reason is demographics. There are fewer college-aged students than in the past. There is also a lack of information about the education required to work in high-tech industries. This shortage can be viewed as both a problem and an opportunity.

The shortage of designers has only intensified the race to turn out the newest and hottest chips. “We try to get a new chip on the market every 18 months,” says Palmanteer. “We have people working on the existing generation of chips as well as the next generation.”

It’s a race to the finish line to design the perfect chip that will control the market.

What kind of candidates do companies want?
Ideally, companies prefer candidates with an electrical engineering background, either a Bachelor's or Master's Degree in electrical engineering.

“The perfect candidates have five years of chip design experience,” said Palmanteer. “They can see an entire project through every stage from beginning to end.”

Typically, designers work in teams. The definition of a team varies from company to company. At Intel, for example, a team consists of 15 to 20 designers. At another chipmaker, a team could be as few as five or as many as 30 people.

The next step up is a chip architect, who serves as a senior designer and has at least 10 years of experience. The architect is in charge of a team of designers and is the guiding force throughout a project.

Since there is a shortage of experienced chip designers in the United States, companies like Intel are hiring high-profile college grads, preferably with electrical engineering degrees, but also those with computer science degrees.

Whatever your background, you have to enjoy debugging things, finding out why things work, and solving problems.

Palmanteer wouldn’t discuss salaries for chip designers at Intel but, rest assured, they’re more than competitive.

Texas Instruments is also flexible when it comes to hiring potential designers. “If someone possesses close to the skills that we need, which is an understanding of the fundamentals of circuit design, we’ll do the rest and invest in training,” Leven said.

What’s the best way to get into the field?
Since companies are so desperate for chip designers, entry into the field is flexible. If you’re already working in one of the technical disciplines, Palmanteer suggests going back to school and getting a degree in computer science with an emphasis on hardware. But, he also suggests working for a company like Intel in an ancillary job such as program manager.

The program manager works closely with the marketing people and chip designers to create time lines and schedules.

“They’re coordinating many different aspects of a project,” Palmanteer said. Program managers “matrix manage,” which means they’re not directly managing but are coordinating all aspects of a project so things are completed on time.

“It’s a challenging job, because you have to keep tight control of a project and motivate people so everything gets done,” he said.

Typically, program managers have an applications background and want to get more involved in the hardware side of the business. The job is a great transition into chip design, especially if you’re also taking EE courses.

Palmanteer also suggests attending conferences and trade shows attended by major chip designers. It’s an opportunity to learn about the newest and hottest trends in chip design.
How hard is it to land a qualified chip designer? If you are a chip designer, are companies willing to offer handsome compensation packages to get you in the door? Post your comments or send them in an e-mail.

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